Scams are a little like a storyline out of the Wild West where there seemed to be little law and order and a lot of crazy behavior. These days, we may have more order but due to ever multiplying and sophisticated technology our information—whether private or not—can be found easily by prying eyes when we’re least expecting it. And sadly, the rash of scams that have arisen often target seniors and try to bilk them out of lots of money.
The list of most prevalent scams includes a grandparent’s scam, sweepstake or lottery scams, utility scam, tech scams, Social Security scam and on and on.
Why are seniors targeted? Two police officers recently explained why to a group of seniors eager to take any steps to thwart all would-be scammers. The most common reasons are that:
- Seniors typically have a nest egg, good credit and more resources than many young people do;
- Seniors find it harder to say “no” because they’ve been raised to be polite and helpful;
- Seniors are less likely to report fraud because they’re often embarrassed to admit they’ve been—or might be--a victim.
- Scam artists feel seniors make poor witnesses because their memories and eyesight to recognize the scammers aren’t as sharp; their hearing often isn’t as good so they may not understand the full implication of what they’re asked to do.
Here’s a typical scam that one smart senior stopped in its tracks.
One morning her phone rang. She picked up because it was a familiar number.
Caller: “Grandma, I am in the hospital. I had a really bad accident and I’m in trouble. I have no money to pay for care, can you send me some?”
Her response: “This doesn’t sound like you.”
Caller: “I sound different because I’m in pain and in the hospital.”
She replied: “I’ll call you back.”
Fortunately, she hung up and immediately called her daughter to ask if her daughter had been in an accident.
Her daughter said, “No. She’s at school.”
Result: This senior did exactly what is most prudent if you’re suspicious about a scam. If it feels creepy, it probably is. Hang up, call for verification or call the source, and never send cash or a green dot card, a prepaid credit card that is untraceable. Just asking for these forms of payment, which are untraceable, signals a probable scam.
Don’t beat yourself up if you’re sucked into this type of scheme. The scammers are clever. They purchase what are called spoofing cards or apps that offer temporary phone numbers. They can even buy familiar numbers, so it looks like you’re getting a call from someone you know.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most typical and current scams, how they work and what to do.
Grandparent Scam. This is similar to the scenario above. The scam artist gets information on the victim from the internet, calls or emails and says he’s either in jail, the hospital or in a foreign country and can’t get home. He asks you to send cash or a green dot card. Once you give the scammer money, most likely he’ll continue contacting you to get more.
Lottery Scam. You get a call or email that you won the lottery and owe taxes on the winnings. The scammer will send a check to you in the mail that is, unbeknownst to you, counterfeit. Before you deposit the check, he or she will ask you to send them cash to pay the taxes on the winnings. Hang up or delete the email.
Utility Scam. You get a call or email that you’re behind on paying your bill. (Some seniors do not pay their own bills or can’t remember if they paid them.) The scammer threatens: “Send money now or your gas, electricity or phone will be turned off.” A senior who is dependent on that phone and can’t be cut off, sends cash. If you get this type of call or email, give no information such as your Social Security number or address. Hang up or ignore and delete the email and contact the utility company to make sure this is on the up and up. Utility companies will never ask for Soc. Security numbers or other information because they already have it on file.
Handyman Scam. You’ll get a knock on the front door from someone who is offering to do work for you to either clean gutters, rake leaves or repair your roof. The person pretends to do the work, it’s not done well but they pressure you to pay them in cash right away. They threaten. Many victims will pay them out of fear just to make them go away. First rule: Don’t open your door ever to strangers. Second: Never let anyone do work without a recommendation.
Tech Scams. You get a call or pop-up email from someone claiming to be a tech with Microsoft or Apple warning of a computer problem. They will ask you then to give them remote access to your computer. They’ll diagnose a non-existent problem and request that you pay for unnecessary and often harmful services. If you get an unexpected pop-up, call, spam email or other urgent message, delete. Don’t click on any links, give control of your computer to them or send any money.
Gypsy Scam. Two people knock on your door and say they need to come into your home to check something like your gas meter. One of the people will distract you while the other sneaks around the house and steals items. Or they’ll spill something on you and offer to hold your jewelry while you dry off. Then they’ll run off. Note: the gas company will not send someone to your home without prior notification. And if you suspect a scam and you’re being pressured to do what they want, call 911 immediately.
Pigeon drop. This is a trick in which the scam artist comes up to a mark or “pigeon,” often outside a store, and persuades the person to give up a sum of money in order to get larger sums of money or a more valuable object. It’s designed to confuse. They ask that you to make a good faith payment upfront to share their money or object and will offer to accompany you to bank to withdraw the money they request. You hand it to them and they run off. If someone approaches you with this scam, go back into the store and call 911.
Dent repair scam. Someone walks up to you in a parking lot and offers to fix a dent in your car for a small fee. He’ll pretend to fix it but does a shoddy job. You complain. He’ll then get pushy and may even threaten you if you don’t pay him on the spot. You pay him just so he’ll go away. Instead, before engaging with the person, go back into the store and call 911.
IRS Scam. Someone will call and say you owe back taxes and if you don’t make restitution, you’ll lose your home or be reported to the Federal government. They ask you to pay with a gift card or cash. That’s a red flag. The IRS will never call (they will send a letter snail mail) and never ask for cash or a gift card. If that’s the case, you know it’s a scam. Hang up. Social Security also won’t call you but will send a letter so beware of unexpected calls.
Here are some tips to avoid being scammed:
- Give no personal information over the phone or Internet, ever.
- Don’t allow strangers access to your home. Ever.
- Most companies won’t accept gift cards or cash—that’s a sign it’s a scam.
- If suspicious, call the company before making any contact or transaction to ask if they sent someone to your home or an email or told someone to call.
- Fill out a form at ic3.org, an internet crime complaint center that collects scam emails to avoid any scamming in the future.
- Use nomorobo.com to block scammers on your landline (it’s free) or on your cell (a small fee).
If you’re a victim of a scam or suspicious one is taking place:
- Call either 911 or the non-emergency number for police to report the scam. It will document the scam in a police report. There is little the police can do once you’re scammed because most are untraceable.
- Contact the three credit agencies, put a fraud alert on your account and freeze your credit.
- Check your credit report at least once a year. We all get one free credit report.
- If you’re a victim of identity theft, contact the Federal Trade Commission.
- Check your checking account regularly even once a day to avoid scammers who may have gotten hold of your banking information. If you see charges that aren’t yours—particularly out of town, alert your ban immediately or credit card company and get a new card.
Beware of scams. A little knowledge, boldness and vigilance are in order to protect yourself and your hard-earned cash. When the economy has problems or the market starts to tank, more scammers will surface. Be on the lookout!